8 Israeli foods that are influencing how America eats
Hummus, falafel, shakshouka, shawarma, the list goes on. Here's why the U.S. loves this cuisine.
It's becoming increasingly common to see these Mediterranean staples show up on your plate here in the U.S. in just about any city, neighborhood, restaurant, venue or occasion. These days, there's no better evidence of its prevalence than the number of Israeli-influenced restaurants popping up stateside – restaurants that are winning a multitude of awards and rave reviews from the world's top critics.
So what's behind this "Israeli food boom" in the U.S.? According to the chefs who do it best, it's all about the desire for more healthful, wholesome food.
"Americans are more adventurous to try new things and at the same time make healthier and more conscious choices on what they want to eat," James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya told From The Grapevine. "With all of the amazing ingredients like tahini, pomegranate, molasses and za'atar, plus the dozens of fresh spices, you can have healthy food with lots of flavor. All of the stars are aligning for Israeli food right now."
And it's those foods that comprise the winning formula for his newest restaurant, aptly called Shaya, recently named the Best Restaurant in America by Esquire Magazine. New Orleanians "go crazy" for Shaya's dishes like Bulgarian lutenitsa (a spread made with tomatoes, eggplant and peppers), fresh-made falafel and Persian rice.
Success stories like Shaya's are proof that Israeli food has become part of the American culinary landscape. You'll see it in every town, from Middle America to the Deep South to the Great Northeast. And just take a look at our all-star list of Israeli-style foods that will have you enjoying this cuisine at home.
Falafel: The best thing to happen to pita
Long before hamburgers, pizza and French fries, there was falafel, a traditional Mediterranean dish that has been enjoyed for centuries. Not only is it the best thing that's ever been stuffed into a pita, it's also the best reason to allow yourself to eat deep-fried food, because fried chickpeas have a bit of an edge over fried chicken when it comes to putting a healthful twist on your meals. You can find falafel virtually anywhere, but many New Yorkers will tell you that the best place for falafel is Taim, started by Israeli couple Einat Admony and Stefan Nafziger. They serve three varieties out of their tiny storefront and food truck – green (mixed with parsley, mint and cilantro), red (mixed with red peppers) and harissa (mixed with Tunisian spices).
Israeli salad: The second best thing to happen to pita
Israeli salad is to pita bread as cheese is to taco shells. It's one of those foods that make a meal a meal, or a sandwich a sandwich, and so on. "This is the salad you’ll see at every falafel stand, standing in big bowls for customers to spoon over their hot falafel," Miriam Kresh, a home cook who lives in Israel and has contributed hundreds of recipes to our Israeli Kitchen channel, told From The Grapevine. "It’s also served in hotel breakfast buffets. It’s a homey, simple, flavorful salad that everybody loves, so much part of home cooking, that when people say, 'I chopped a salad,' you understand what they’re talking about right away."
Shakshouka: Breakfast with pizzazz
This Israeli breakfast menu mainstay is now commonly made in restaurants, home kitchens and even food trucks across the world. Shakshouka (also sometimes spelled "shakshuka") at its core is poached eggs, tomato sauce and vegetables. But it can be dressed up according to personal taste, with ingredients like Manchego cheese, chives and roasted eggplant added to the mix. Check out our Israeli Kitchen chef's take on the traditional dish.
Shawarma: Street food superstar
No, it's not a gyro. But it's easy to get the two confused: Both include marinated meat and vegetables, and both are derived from the Turkish Kebab Doner. Both are generally served on a flatbread or pita. The difference, however, is important, and it's twofold: the meat (gyro meat is usually pork or lamb, while shawarma can be lamb, turkey or chicken) and the seasoning (gyro meat is seasoned with a blend of oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, while common spices in shawarma are turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves). While you're more likely to find a gyro shop in the States than a shawarma spot, that's now changing with franchises like Shawarma King and Shawarma XPress.
Sabich: A spectacular sandwich
This Israeli sandwich includes fried eggplant, hummus, tahini, Israeli salad, potatoes and parsley on a pita. (Photo: eatingeast/Flickr)
The sabich traditionally contains fried eggplant and hard-boiled eggs. Like shawarma, it's a popular street food, but you won't miss the meat in this vegan-friendly concoction that usually includes hummus, tahini, Israeli salad and boiled potatoes. And it has the rare honor of being eaten at pretty much any time of day. This is an unusual sandwich, but what really makes it stand out is a sauce that's often added to the sabich called amba. Its ingredients? Pickled mangoes, fenugreek and turmeric. Not your average street food, and that's what makes it amazing.
Hummus: A dip to end all dips
In its purest form, hummus is smooth, creamy dipping bliss. Everyone loves this stuff, and it's easy to see why. Kresh thinks the appeal comes from hummus' ability to satisfy "hunger for something with a little heft, but which isn't heavy." The hummus at Shaya in New Orleans is considered a life-altering experience for some folks – which may also be attributed to the warm pita it's served with. "It’s one thing to have pita; it’s another to have the best pita you’ve ever had in your life," Esquire Magazine's Tom Junod told From The Grapevine. "How does a restaurant even do that?"
Bourekas: Puff pastry pillows
Many cultures have their own version of filled pastry. We just happen to think the boureka has them all beat. In Israel, Kresh says bourekas rate "high in the comfort food category" for "the young, the old and the in-between." Stateside, you'll find them in many Mediterranean bakeries, but the best way to enjoy these little pillows of savory goodness is at home, straight from the oven, using this recipe.
Israeli couscous: Pearls of perfection
Israeli couscous with vegetables, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and parsley. (Photo: Lapina Maria/Shutterstock)
This pearl-shaped pasta, known in Israel as ptitim, differs from traditional North African couscous in texture and shape. And like most of the foods on this list, Israeli couscous is gaining a substantial following around the world, both as a side dish and as an ingredient in some unconventional yet delicious-looking recipes. Food trucks in New York have been known to incorporate couscous into some pretty interesting dishes, from grilled tilapia to apples and cranberries.
What's your favorite Israeli food? Let us know in the comments, and bon appetit!
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